The story of a humanitarian rescue

Budapest 1944. Des diplomates sauvent des Juifs
Larissa Cain
L’Harmattan, 2020 (published in French)

The distinctive feature of this book is that it is written from the perspective of the victims, the author being a Holocaust survivor. As a child, she miraculously escaped from the Warsaw ghetto where she had been confined with her family. She settled in France after World War II, where she completed her schooling, went on to higher education and became an orthodontist. At the same time, she had always set her heart on sharing her experiences and writing about other aspects of this genocide.

As Larissa Cain approaches her ninetieth birthday, her latest book deals with an episode that, albeit fairly well known, has remained relatively undocumented: the rescue, in 1944, of some of Budapest’s Jewish population by diplomats from various neutral countries posted to the Hungarian capital, but also by humanitarian aid workers, mainly the delegate and staff of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Until the spring of 1944, the 725,000 Jews living in Hungary – not to mention the 100,000 in the territories that Hungary had annexed since the beginning of the war following its alliance with Nazi Germany – lived in hope of escaping the extermination that was taking place in the countries occupied by the German army. Despite an increasingly fierce anti-Semitic policy, internment and various coercive and brutal measures, their fate could almost seem enviable. On 19 March 1944, however, their situation took a tragic turn for the worse when Hitler’s army entered Hungary: the Nazi leaders feared that the government in Budapest – aware of developments in the conflict and well versed in the events that occurred in fascist Italy in 1943 – would sign a separate armistice with the Allies.

The following week, Adolf Eichmann – the genocide’s great organiser – arrived in the Hungarian capital. Just over one month later, on 29 April 1944, deportations to the “death camps” began in various provincial regions with terrifying efficiency. In less than two months, 440,000 Hungarian Jews had been crammed into trains and deported to Auschwitz, where they were immediately massacred. That left 250,000 Jewish people in Budapest. On 8 July 1944, Miklós Horthy, leader of the government and still theoretically in power albeit under the control of the occupying forces, called a halt to the deportations. There was little doubt, however, that this was merely a reprieve. The Red Army was still far from Budapest, and would not reach the city until December. After a siege lasting several weeks, and at the cost of massive urban destruction, the fighting in the lower city (Pest) ceased on 16 January 1945, but continued for several weeks in the upper part (Buda). Meanwhile, the vast majority of the capital’s Jewish community had escaped the worst, thanks to the courageous and resolute action of diplomats and humanitarian aid workers based there. The rescue went ahead despite attempts at new deportations, the creation of a ghetto and various atrocities and massacres committed by the SS and militias of the ruling Hungarian fascist party, the Arrow Cross.

It is this story that the author endeavours to tell in her book which, whilst laboriously written in places and with some syntactical and spelling errors attributable to the editor, is wonderful in its originality and full of information. Beyond its historical aspects,
it offers a wealth of lessons that will prove invaluable to today’s humanitarian aid workers facing situations of extreme vulnerability in civilian populations.

For the most part, the book consists of a portrait gallery of these very diplomats and humanitarian aid workers, their staff and sometimes their wives. Looking back on their previous careers, it gives a detailed description of the rescue operations they mounted in Budapest, highlighting the often insane risks they took. It is precisely this material, supplemented by various eyewitness accounts, that makes Larissa Cain’s book so valuable.

The organisers established numerous protected areas in various parts of the city, which grew steadily in number as the months passed by.(1)It is not known if they were inspired by the precedent set in Nanjing, China, where the entry of Japanese troops in December 1937 resulted in the massacre of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of captured soldiers and the loss of somewhere between 90,000 and 300,000 civilian lives. A “safety zone” set up in the city centre by the few Westerners who remained out of humanitarian concern – such as the German John Rabe, who, incidentally, was pro-Nazi – helped, in part at least, to save the mass of civilians sheltering there from the killing and to provide them with some assistance. The author, in any case, makes no reference to it. See, for example, Michaël Prazan, Le Massacre de Nankin, 1937. Entre mémoire, oubli et négation, Denoël, 2007. In apartment blocks, they gathered and housed as many Jewish people from the capital as they could, along with some from the surrounding area and others who had escaped deportation in the provinces. These diplomats and humanitarian aid workers designated these buildings as being under “protection”, with some even enjoying extra-territorial status. Thus protected, these people received water, food, medicine, clothing and essential items. Thousands of them received safe conduct passes, genuine or otherwise, allowing them to escape the ongoing deportations (albeit at a slower pace), militia-led arrests and being sent to the ghetto. Some were given another nationality, different from the Hungarian one which condemned them to remain in the country, thus allowing them to leave.

Friedrich Born was the ICRC’s Swiss delegate and played a crucial role in this vast rescue plan. Appointed by the ICRC in May 1944, he knew the country very well, having settled there in the mid-1930s as a businessman. He had learnt the language, which was complemented by his perfect command of German. He directly saved an estimated 15,000 people, not to mention those who, held in the ghetto, were able to escape starvation thanks to the meagre supplies he managed to get through to them. Again, of course, the numbers are imprecise, but perhaps tens of thousands of human beings owe him their lives. He was not alone: the few people he employed supported him in his titanic task, not to mention the Hungarian Red Cross on which he was able to rely. Despite the highly conventional and institutional nature of this body and its porosity to the prevailing anti-Semitic mood, its director, György Gergely, was a real pillar of support.

As for the diplomats, the most famous is, of course, the Swede Raoul Wallenberg, who is still highly respected for the major role he played in this massive rescue, and rightly so. We know that he was arrested at a checkpoint by the Red Army when it entered Budapest in January 1945. Doubts remain as to his fate, with some saying he was executed in 1947 in the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, others saying he died in the Gulag around 1950. Larissa Cain naturally mentions this hero, of course, but she is just as committed to highlighting the equally crucial role of lesser-known actors, such as the Swiss chargé d’affaires and acting ambassador Harald Feller, the Papal Nuncio (the Vatican’s ambassador) in Budapest Angelo Rotta, the Italian-Spanish Giorgio “Jorge” Perlasca and the Swiss vice-consul Carl Lutz(2)It should be noted that prior to his arrival in Budapest in 1942, Lutz had held a similar position in Palestine under British mandate for seven years, where Wallenberg also travelled for his pre-war professional activities A sensitivity to the plight of Jewish communities may have developed among them. and his wife Gertrud.

This powerful story, which occurred almost eighty years ago, can help shed light on certain aspects of our often-dramatic times. Naturally, the organisation set up in Budapest by these humanitarian aid workers and diplomats cannot be reproduced in other situations where civilian populations are under serious threat. A quick analysis – which, of course, Larissa Cain does not attempt – shows that it requires a certain number of factors, both fundamental and temporary, to come together. They include the varying degrees to which local authorities comply with the rules of diplomacy (for example, the immunity of diplomatic personnel, the inviolability of premises or the concept of extra-territoriality) and with at least some of the norms of international humanitarian law, such as the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian aid workers and representatives of States not party to an armed conflict. There is also, of course, a part to be played by the personal feelings of some officials within the politico-military apparatus involved in mass murder, which may urge them to perform certain “acts of humanity”.
If the perpetrators were subsequently held to account, these actions could be credited to them. With the fight against impunity for the perpetrators of mass atrocities committed against civilians having become a central component of the post-conflict process(3)In the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2022, it even took place in real time. The gathering of data, the testimonies, the identification of the scenes of crimes, etc. all takes place in the midst of a war. and the war of words between belligerents, one can venture to create a link between two moments in history.

Thus, and even though the situation is not at all comparable, the scheme implemented in Hungary could have been applied in the summer of 2021 in Kabul when tens of thousands of civilians were desperately trying to leave Afghanistan after it fell to the Taliban. In response to the prevailing chaos, the president of France offered to provide them with temporary shelter – until they could be evacuated – in certain areas of the capital under the protection of United Nations forces. This initiative was not followed up and, if truth be told, this failure is quite understandable: it is unlikely that a victorious army or armed group seizing control of a country would accept the intervention of foreign military forces (even Blue Helmets), including under a Security Council mandate, even though years of hard struggle led to the fall of the previous regime. Given their concerns about international recognition and legitimisation, however, the new authorities could have accepted, temporarily, measures similar to those put in place almost eighty years ago in Budapest.

Without writing counterfactual history, the comparison is worth pondering and should not be ruled out in the future. In exceptional circumstances, the non-militarisation of the protection of vulnerable people and populations – provided that it does not get bogged down and that evacuation or political solutions are quickly put in place – seems to us to be the right approach. The tools of humanitarian negotiation, as well as the corpus of international humanitarian law, refugee law and international human rights law, remain a support mechanism upon which we must be able to rely. The lessons of history will thus not be wasted.(4)As a complement to the book reviewed here, the interested reader may wish to read Les Diplomates face à la Shoah [Diplomats Facing the Shoah], the catalogue of the eponymous exhibition (now closed) organised by the Shoah Memorial in Paris. It is also an opportunity to look back at the first “whistle-blowers” who warned of the rise of persecution in pre-war Nazi Germany. Some of them will become rescuers or will be involved – after the war – in the negotiations on reparations and in the construction of the international dimension of memory.

Philippe Ryfman
Jurist and political scientist
Honorary Professor and Associate Researcher at the University of Paris I, Associate Researcher at the Canadian Research Institute on Humanitarian Crises and Aid (University of Quebec in Montreal). Through books and articles, he analyses the world of Northern, Southern and emerging non-governmental organisations, as well as the field of humanitarian aid.

Translated from the French by Derek Scoins

References
1 It is not known if they were inspired by the precedent set in Nanjing, China, where the entry of Japanese troops in December 1937 resulted in the massacre of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of captured soldiers and the loss of somewhere between 90,000 and 300,000 civilian lives. A “safety zone” set up in the city centre by the few Westerners who remained out of humanitarian concern – such as the German John Rabe, who, incidentally, was pro-Nazi – helped, in part at least, to save the mass of civilians sheltering there from the killing and to provide them with some assistance. The author, in any case, makes no reference to it. See, for example, Michaël Prazan, Le Massacre de Nankin, 1937. Entre mémoire, oubli et négation, Denoël, 2007.
2 It should be noted that prior to his arrival in Budapest in 1942, Lutz had held a similar position in Palestine under British mandate for seven years, where Wallenberg also travelled for his pre-war professional activities A sensitivity to the plight of Jewish communities may have developed among them.
3 In the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2022, it even took place in real time. The gathering of data, the testimonies, the identification of the scenes of crimes, etc. all takes place in the midst of a war.
4 As a complement to the book reviewed here, the interested reader may wish to read Les Diplomates face à la Shoah [Diplomats Facing the Shoah], the catalogue of the eponymous exhibition (now closed) organised by the Shoah Memorial in Paris. It is also an opportunity to look back at the first “whistle-blowers” who warned of the rise of persecution in pre-war Nazi Germany. Some of them will become rescuers or will be involved – after the war – in the negotiations on reparations and in the construction of the international dimension of memory.